A few weeks ago I received a text from my friend Jenny saying that she “left a small present” on my front steps to thank me for the dinner I had prepared the evening before. I was expecting perhaps some flowers, as she had given me a gorgeous rosemary plant back in the spring when I was in the midst of experimenting and perfecting my Rosemary Focaccia. What I found instead was a small container of what looked like wallpaper paste, which was 100 grams of Sourdough Starter, along with a note instructing me to store it in the refrigerator and that I would need to “feed” it weekly. I was grateful, but a tad anxious, since I had managed to kill the rosemary plant in a few short weeks and now I had what was basically a new “pet” that I was responsible to keep alive. I dutifully popped it in the fridge and figured I had a week to learn what my new friend liked to be fed to stay healthy.
After about a week, I noticed the lid kept popping off of the container and a layer of liquid had formed on top. I reached out to Jenny and she advised that it was probably telling me that it needed to be fed. I took a few notes and then consulted a few websites to learn more, and immediately became confused as there are so many different recipes for maintaining sourdough starter and most strongly suggest the use of a kitchen scale for precise measurements or risk of failure. As I’ve mentioned previously, I much prefer cooking to baking for the very reason of the precision required for baking, so I wasn’t sure about this “gift” at this point, as it was beginning to feel like more of a project. I managed to find a site that gave suggested measures in ounces and cups, so I commenced with the first feeding and then waited to see if anything happened. I was delighted to see that in a short time the mixture was rising and in four hours had doubled- I hadn’t killed it! I called Jenny to report my success and she told me that this starter is strong stuff, hers having come from her sister in law in San Francisco, who in turn received it from her sister in law in Louisiana.
Now that I had fed my starter and it was flourishing, it was time to bake. With the only ingredients being flour, water, salt and the starter (which is simply flour and water), I was’t sure how this was going to end up with tasty bread, but I figured I had nothing to lose and I owed it to my thoughtful friend to give it a go. The dough seemed pretty sticky, but I resisted the temptation to add more flour since my focaccia also has a sticky dough and it comes out crunchy and delicious every time.
Voila! Sourdough Bread! I wasn’t sure how it would taste, but it was delicious and reminded me of my grandfather (Papa), who used to bring back sourdough bread when he traveled to San Francisco. Dennis popped some in the toaster and said it was “awesome”, so I toasted up a slice and made avocado toast, which was so tasty. After the initial success, I decided to try to recreate the fantastic olive bread that Publican Quality Meats sells (from Publican Quality Breads, not open for retail sales) which I love and use to make decadent croutons for my Caesar Salad. The first one needed a little work with the olive distribution, but it tasted exactly like PQM’s and the croutons were great. When you feed your starter you are supposed to discard all but 1/2 cup, so I’ve since been re-gifting to friends, though the batch I sent to my sister in law never arrived, so we think it might be a science project gone wrong. . . the starter may have been too active for shipping and actively fermenting exploded. SO, I’ll try again, but make sure it is in a container with plenty of room to expand, after all it is a living thing!
- Dutch Oven (I use a 5 1/2 quart Le Creuset)
- Large Bowl
- 1/3 Cup DRY measuring cup
- 2 Cup or larger LIQUID measuring cup
- Rubber spatula (or Spoonula)
- Disposable kitchen gloves (I like the Nitrile ones)
- 1/3 Cup Sourdough Starter heaping
- 1 3/4 Cups Water (warm)
- 4 1/4 Cups Bread Flour
- 2 tsp fine Sea Salt
- If it has been a while since you fed your starter, then you will need to feed it 8 hours before baking to ensure it is at least doubling in size, which means it is strong enough to make the bread rise. If you have been feeding your starter regularly, you can use it straight from the fridge as long as it has been fed within 7 days, however leave it on the counter for about an hour before making your dough.
- Measure a heaping 1/3 cup of the starter in a dry measuring cup. It will be quite sticky. Add the starter to the water, after a couple of seconds it should float, which means your starter is strong and active.
- Whisk the starter and the water together until the starter is dissolved and you have a murky liquid.
- Mix the wet and dry ingredients with a rubber spatula (Spoonula) until a shaggy dough forms and there are no streaks of dry flour. It will take a bit of elbow grease to get the last bits of flour incorporated.
- Let sit for 15 minutes.
- Wet your fingers (or the gloves, if using) and pull one side of the dough from the sides of the bowl and stretch and fold it over the other half of the dough.
- Give the bowl a quarter turn and repeat until you have made a full turn (4 times total).
- Let the dough sit 15 minutes and repeat the stretch and fold process.
- Cover the dough with plastic wrap or a damp kitchen towel and allow to proof for at least 8 and up to 12 hours in a warm place free of drafts.
- After "proofing" your dough should have risen and approximately doubled. It should have a curved dome and look a bit like a distended belly. If you poke it with a floured finger, it should slowly come back.
- Line a clean bowl with baking parchment. Make sure to use a parchment that can take high heat, as you will be baking at 475-500*. I use the brand IF YOU CARE, available at Whole Foods, Amazon and other specialty stores and buy the pre-cut sheets).
- With wet fingers, pull the dough away from the bowl and grab it with both hands and rise it high above the bowl and allow it to stretch. As it returns to the bowl, fold it over itself. It will be sticky, but should not be too loose or stick to the bowl once you gather it together. If it is sticking to the bowl, add a touch more flour, a tablespoon at a time.
- Wait about 90 seconds and repeat the stretching 2 more times. (During the 3rd stretch, the dough may not stretch as high and may require you to pull from all sides.)After the 3rd stretch, mound the dough into the parchment lined bowl, shaping it so the "seam" is on the bottom. Dust the dough lightly with flour and place in the refrigerator while you heat your dutch oven.
- Heat oven to 500* (or 475* on convection setting, which is what I use).
- Place the dutch oven (covered) in the oven while it is preheating and allow it to heat for 45 minutes to an hour.
- When the oven is ready, remove the dough from the refrigerator. Using kitchen shears or a very sharp knife, cut a long slice in the top of the dough or several slices to make an X or flower pattern.
- Carefully remove the dutch oven and remove the lid. Lift the dough by the corners of the parchment and place in the dutch oven. (I leave the dutch oven on the rack and remove the lid, drop in the dough and replace the lid.)
- Cover and bake for 25 minutes.
- Remove lid and bake for an additional 20-25 minutes until dark golden brown.
- Remove to a rack and allow to cool for an hour before slicing.
- If you are lucky enough to have a friend (like me) to share starter with you then you are good to go. I have shared my starter with many friends, who have shared with others, so it’s proliferated all over the place now. I’m happy to send some to you if you don’t know someone who has some. Otherwise, if you’re have the time and up for the challenge, you can easily make your own starter in about a week. There are many websites, including King Arthur, that provide instructions.
- It is best to make bread when your starter is “hungry” meaning it has recently been fed and has at least doubled in size in 8 hours.
- If you keep your starter in the fridge and it has been fed within the past 7 days, you can use it directly from the fridge, but I have found better results when I leave the starter on the counter for an hour before preparing the dough. you should notice it rising while it comes to room temperature.
- I have found my best loaves are made with starter that has been fed within 4 days, as they seem to rise a bit higher producing loaves that a little less dense.
- Feeding your starter calls for discarding (perfect time to share) all but 1/2 cup and adding 1/2 cup of warm water and 3/4 cup + 2 TBS bread flour . . . mix well and leave, covered, at room temperature until it has risen an inch or two and then return it to the refrigerator. If you are baking, let it rise for 8 hours until it peaks; if you a just doing a weekly feeding, do not let it peak, just let it get going and then return to the fridge.
- There is no limit to how frequently you can feed your starter. If you are baking frequently, you will need to feed it more frequently since you will only have enough starter to make 2 loaves of bread and still have enough to feed and keep it going.
- For OLIVE BREAD, substitute 1 Cup whole wheat flour for a cup of the bread flour (ie: 3 Cups bread flour and 1 Cup whole wheat flour). After stretching the proofed dough, turn it onto a lightly floured surface and press out. Add 3/4 Cup mixed pitted olives and press in lightly. Roll the dough over, jelly roll style and then form into a ball and place in the parchment lined bowl, dust with flour and place in the fridge while the dutch oven heats and bake in the same manner as the plain bread.